After 20 minutes of Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals, I was ready to declare that the Boston Bruins have become legit contenders, and a deep run in the playoffs would be a realistic goal.
That wouldn’t have been an outrageous proclamation. The Bruins entered the game as one of the hottest teams in the league, and had many of the signs of a title contender – some remarkable play from their goaltender, production from unlikely sources, strong coaching, a mix of veterans and young players playing well, and a mostly clean bill of health (which is a miracle considering how the season began).
But the Bruins blew a two-goal lead, made some coaching blunders, and ultimately suffered a brutal 4-3 loss to the Caps, which should lead to fans pumping the brakes on the lofty expectations that were surrounding the team… at least for now.
Look, the Bruins are still on a crazy run, and have rapidly progressed from disappointing to shockingly surprising.
Since November 16th, the Bruins are 14-3-2 for 30 points in just 19 games. Only the Vegas Golden Knights (15-3-1) have more points over the last month and a half of the calendar year. The B’s have allowed just 38 goals in those 19 games, which are the fewest in the NHL, and their +23 goal differential is far and above the best in the league.
While the entire team seems to be clicking, there have been some individuals that have clearly stepped up to guide the Bruins from mediocre to near the top of the Eastern Conference. After a dreadful start that culminated in a four-game benching, Tuukka Rask has been outstanding in net. Rask is 9-1-1 with a miniscule 1.55 GAA and a .944 save percentage since November 16th, and has firmly regained starting duties from Anton Khudobin (who has a very respectable 5-2-1 record with a 2.38 GAA during the same timeframe).
The third line of David Backes, Riley Nash, and Danton Heinen have been a revelation during the B’s torrid stretch, combining for 16 goals and 25 assists with a +14 rating. Backes has averaged nearly a point per game since returning nearly a month early from colon surgery, while Heinen leads the Bruins in points and assists, with 18 points in his last 19 games.
Heinen isn’t the only rookie that has been impressive for the surging Bruins. Anyone that has watched hockey can see just how great Charlie McAvoy is at just 20 years old, as he has 11 points and is third in the league with an absurd +14 rating in the last month and a half. Matt Grzelcyk isn’t far behind with a +11 rating in two fewer games, and the 23-year-old Charlestown, MA native has made a strong case to stay in the lineup when Adam McQuaid returns from his broken leg.
The B’s have recently beaten some of the best teams in the league – Winnipeg, New Jersey, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and San Jose – but it’s those two pesky losses to the Capitals that still prevent the Bruins from being true contenders.
A win over the Capitals on Thursday night would have snapped the B’s 11-game (now 12-game) losing streak to their Eastern Conference rivals, and would have solidified their standing as one of the top teams in not only the East but the entire NHL.
In my opinion, you can’t be a legit contender if there’s one team that you just can’t beat. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Bruins seemingly can’t defeat one of the other contenders in the East, it was the way they suffered their latest loss to the Caps that was more discouraging. The B’s jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead within the first two and a half minutes of the game, but could not seal the deal mainly thanks to some questionable coaching decisions.
Bruce Cassidy has done a phenomenal job dealing with the multitude of injuries that the Bruins had in the first two months of the season, and then integrating those players back into the lineup as they returned to health. He’s also known when to bench players and which youngsters to stick with even through the rocky start of the year that saw many of us fans questioning his every move.
Cassidy made some very odd choices against Washington, when he failed to challenge the first Capitals’ goal – which looked like it was clearly offsides – then surprisingly challenged the last Washington goal which then gave the Caps a power play deep into the third period. He finished his baffling hat trick of head-scratchers by choosing Nash over McAvoy in the final round of the shootout needing a goal to avoid the inevitable 4-3 loss. Nash was hot offensively and does have a decent success rate in shootouts, but after the last two shootouts McAvoy should be a part of every one for the next 20 years – which are hopefully all spent in Boston.
Everyone has a bad game or two, so Cassidy should get a pass for Thursday’s miscues, but the fact that they likely derailed a chance to both exorcise the demons of the Capitals and push the Bruins further into actual contention cannot be overlooked.
Prior to the last 19 games, the only thing the Bruins were contending for would have been the draft lottery, so even considering them as legit contenders right now is a huge accomplishment. The B’s are set up not only for the future but for the present, and if they can enter 2018 with the same ridiculous results as they have at the tail end of 2017, they’ll be contenders a lot sooner than anyone expected… just as long as they can avoid the Caps in the playoffs.
Written by: Adam Belue (@albinomamba44)